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Alaska is one of those places that’s hard to describe – and trust me, I’ve tried many, many times on this blog! It’s a huge and wild, breath-taking and memory-making destination that most people can visit more easily than they realize. Yes, planning a trip to Alaska is complicated because of how big the state is and many of the logistics involved, but you can certainly plan a trip to Alaska by yourself if you choose.
I grew up in Alaska, and have visited many times since moving away – most recently twice in 2023. Between my own trips and those I’ve planned for others, I’ve learned a thing or two about how to plan an Alaska trip, but I’ve never written down the nitty-gritty steps. Instead, I’ve always focused on the travel resources and info you need as part of the planning process.
In this post, I’m breaking down exactly how to plan a trip to Alaska – without the specifics about each destination, what to do where, and how to get around. Instead, you can use this post as a framework to plan your own Alaska trip, then use my other Alaska travel resources to come up with the activities, sights, places to stay, and meals to eat. I run through each of these steps every time I plan a trip, even though I’ve visited many times; if you follow them, your first trip to Alaska will be unforgettable even if not every part of the trip goes smoothly.
Ready to plan your Alaska trip? Here are the steps to plan a trip to Alaska – including specific advice about visiting Alaska in 2024 (and beyond).
In this post, I promote travel to a destination that is the traditional lands of many Alaska Native groups, including the Aleut, Athabascan, Haida, Inupiat, Tlingit, and Yuit peoples. With respect, I make a formal land acknowledgment, extending my appreciation and respect to the past and present people of these lands. To learn more about the peoples who call these lands home, I invite you to explore Native Land.
This post is updated annually with new advice to help you make the most of your trip.
Step 1. Determine the Number of Days You Have to Travel
You probably already know exactly how long you have to visit Alaska – but you might be surprised how many emails I get from people who don’t know how long they want to visit. This is the most important thing to decide first so you can plan the rest of the trip within the time you have.
(If you’re lucky enough to not have time constraints, you can skip this step for now and come back to it after Step 4 on my list to make a decision at that point.)
To help you calculate how many days you have, it helps to know about travel to/from Alaska. 50% of visitors arrive and/or depart by plane; the other 50% arrive and/or depart by cruise ship.
- Most flights arrive in the late afternoon or evening, so your arrival day should be considered a travel day.
- Most flights depart in the afternoon, evening, or as a red-eye, so you may have anywhere from a half-day to a full final day in Alaska on your departure day.
- If you’re arriving by cruise ship, you’ll disembark in the morning and have most of that day for activities.
- If you’re departing my cruise ship, you’ll spend most of the day getting to your ship, so consider that a “travel day.”
Once you know the number of full days you’ll have in Alaska, you can start planning where to go and what to do once you’re there!
Step 2. Set a General Budget – Then Add 30%
While flights to Alaska have been really cheap lately, don’t let that fool you: Alaska is an expensive travel destination! Most people have a budget in mind when they start Alaska travel planning, then have to adjust it once they figure out how expensive everything is within the state.
Let’s do that now: take the number you want to spend, and add 30%.
You can also check out my breakdown of how much it costs to visit Alaska to get a sense of the general numbers. In short, it’s about $350 per person per day to visit Alaska, excluding airfare. So for example: on a 7-day trip for two people, plan for $4,900 plus airfare. A family of four should budget closer to $7,000-$8,000, keeping in mind that some children’s activities cost less than adults.
Step 3. Choose Only 1-2 Alaska Regions to Visit
As I’ve said repeatedly, Alaska is huge. (This is #1 on my things to know before visiting Alaska!) It’s the kind of big you can’t really understand until you get there, so for now – please – just trust me. Alaska is too big to “see it all” on one trip (which is why I also say you can visit more than once on that same list).
Instead, you’ll need to choose 1-2 regions of the state to visit during your trip, depending on the number of days you have to visit. There are five regions in Alaska, and each one requires a different amount of travel time:
- Arctic – The northern part of the state. You need at least 2 days, plus 1-2 travel days to visit the Arctic, depending on where you plan to go
- Interior – The central part of Alaska, home to Denali and Fairbanks. You need at least 1 day plus 1 travel day per destination. (So to visit Denali and Fairbanks you need 3-4 days.)
- Southcentral – Home to Anchorage and the Kenai Peninsula (and my home city, Eagle River), this is a popular spot visited by almost everyone who comes to Alaska. Give yourself at least 1 day per city plus 1 travel day between them.
- Southeast – Also called the Inside Passage, this area is home to waterfront communities including Juneau, Ketchikan, and Sitka. Most people visit by cruise, but you can hop between them by plane or ferry. Give yourself at least 1 day per destination plus 1 travel day between them.
- Southwest – A vast swath of the western part of the state, mostly inaccessible except by plane (or long boat ride). You need at least 2 days to visit any single Southwest destination, plus 1-2 travel days.
The “easiest” regions in Alaska to visit are Southcentral, Southeast, and the Interior, so this is where I advise most people to focus their time during their first trip to Alaska. (Heck, I lived there for over a decade and have visited 10+ times and I still only focus on these three regions!)
Step 4. Decide on Your “Must Do” and “Nice to Do” Activities
This is the hardest part of planning a trip to Alaska; you can’t do it all, so you need to prioritize. I recommend making a “must-do” list and a “nice-to-do” list. Then ensure you get all your must-dos onto your itinerary and add nice-to-dos where you can.
Here are some of the most popular must-do activities:
- See Denali / Visit Denali National Park
- Go whale watching
- See wildlife like bears and moose
- Meet huskies / Learn about dog sledding
- See the Northern Lights
You can use my list of things to do in Alaska or my Alaska travel guide for more ideas, too – but remember: you have to prioritize the must-do compared to the nice-to-do. Creating a list and researching each one will also help you start to put together a budget for your Alaska trip.
It’s also important to note which activities are winter-only, such as seeing the northern lights. As I said, you can’t do everything in Alaska during a single trip!
Pro-Tip: Grab an Alaska Itinerary Pack to Jump-Start the Process
If you want a shortcut, I can help. I offer Alaska Itinerary Packs; these are an easy way to jump-start the process of planning your trip, as they include most of the popular must-do activities, plus all the other logistics (travel between them, meal suggestions, and even hotel suggestions). I am working to update these and they’ll be completely up-to-date for the 2024 season by Thanksgiving 2023.
I offer Itinerary Packs for Alaska trips between 5 days and 12 days long. This is a serious shortcut to the planning process if you want one!
Can’t see the quiz? Click here to open it in a new tab!
Step 5. Figure Out How to Get Between Your Must-Dos
Once you have your unique list of must-do Alaska activities, you need to figure out how to get between them.
Step 5a. Map Them Out
Start by mapping out all of the activities you want to do; I recommend My Maps (a Google product) for this. This will start to give you a sense of how big Alaska is, and how much travel time you need to build into your itinerary.
Step 5b. Research Transportation Options & Travel Times
Next, it’s time to figure out some logistics. Broadly speaking, there are four ways to get between places (or activities) in Alaska:
- Car (rental, RV, bus, etc.)
- Train (via the Alaska Railroad which connects Fairbanks, Denali, Talkeetna, Anchorage, Whittier, and Seward)
- Plane (Alaska Airlines, sightseeing plane, charter, etc.)
- Boat (for communities on the coast, obviously)
Once you’ve mapped out your must-do Alaska activities, you can start to see what your options are between each one, plus how long each one takes. I provide suggestions in all of my Alaska itineraries to help.
For example, travel between Anchorage and Denali varies a lot by mode of transport – and cost:
- 4.5 hours by car – cost depends on your duration and whether you do a round-trip or one-way rental
- 5.5 hours by bus – $100 each way on the Park Connection
- 8 hours by train – cost varies based on your route and seat class
This is an important step to actually build your itinerary (and continue building your budget).
Step 6. Book Flights & In-State Transport
Now that you have your must-do activities, plus have decided how to get between them, and how long everything is going to take – you can start booking. Get your flights booked first, followed by the transportation you just researched.
In 2023, rental cars will (continue to) be scarce (and still expensive) in Alaska, so book these things as soon as you know your Alaska travel dates and how you’ll get between your various Alaska activities. While I used to recommend Turo, I’ve had some bad experiences with them and no longer recommend them in Alaska specifically. There are also some local agencies that can be a great option instead of the national chains; here’s a list of those.
Step 7. Book Accommodations
With your general travel dates and in-state transportation locked down, you can now compare and book hotels or other places to stay. I have a few tools I love (and recommend) for Alaska accommodation:
You can obviously book through whatever site you prefer – these are just the ones I personally use and recommend here on my site.
I also have lists of where to stay in many major Alaskan destinations based on my own experiences and recommendations, including Anchorage, Denali, Fairbanks, Girdwood, Haines, Juneau, Ketchikan, Seward, Sitka, Skagway, Talkeetna, and Valdez.
Step 8. Book Activities
I recommend waiting to book activities until after you have flights, transport, and accommodations booked in case you need to make any adjustments to the specific dates of any given activity. This also means you know exactly when you are available for an activity – and how much flexibility you have for weather delays/rescheduling. (This is common if you have any flightseeing on your must-do list.)
Once you’ve finished booking activities, your itinerary is pretty much set!
Step 9. Arrange Meals (& Reservations)
Just because I left it to last doesn’t mean meals aren’t important – one of my favorite parts of traveling in Alaska is eating and discovering new places to eat!
However, as you can likely understand, planning meals can wait until you know when you’ll be where, plus how long each activity will take and when you have meal times available. Only then can you put together a plan of the places that you want to eat.
I have a list of restaurant recommendations in many Alaskan cities, including Anchorage, Denali, Fairbanks, Girdwood, Juneau, Seward, Sitka, Skagway, Talkeetna, and Valdez. (My Alaska Itinerary Packs also include meal suggestions if you want that shortcut!)
Most Alaska restaurants don’t require reservations, but I recommend seeing if you can set reservations for any that offer them. In 2023, lots of people will be visiting Alaska and staffing may still be an issue (as it has been) so having a reservation will mean you don’t wait 45 minutes for a table every single night.
Step 10. Make Sure You Know What to Pack
These two photos were taken in the same spot in Alaska (Wrangell) in two very different seasons: May at the start of summer, and September at the end of it. What you’ll notice is some real consistency in what I pack: lots of layers and waterproof (or water-resistant) shoes. Alaska has some periods of nice weather, but you should always be prepared for anything!
I recommend checking my Alaska packing lists at this point in your planning process so you know if you need to purchase anything extra before your trip:
I’m also working on a list of what to pack when the forecast calls for rain or if you’re visiting in the shoulder season (May or September). I’ll add those links here once I publish them!
Planning an Alaska trip is complicated – it’s a big place with lots to see and do. For many people, it is a once-in-a-lifetime destination, even if they end up visiting again. (It does get easier to plan future trips, I promise!) It’s worth it to work through these steps for how to plan your Alaska trip, to ensure you have a great, unforgettable time!
Have any questions about planning your own Alaska trip? Let me know in the comments below!
Need More Alaska Travel Advice?
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